It seems like every post from here on out may be about transitions. We are now at the six-month point, and recently left our home in Hoi An – the last time we will have a ‘stable’ place to live. Our last few days in the town were filled with Hoi-An's best-ofs and life maintenance, including haircuts. We even got some sunny days! The boys finally swam in our very cold pool (we were not able to get out of paying for the near-daily cleaning of this pool, despite the fact that it was cold and pouring rain - see pic) and devoured the long-desired bunny cotton candy of the kids' dreams.  

It’s wild to think that we have been traveling for six months. We are starting to think about our return – what that looks like both logistically and intentionally, while trying to stay fully present to the everyday.

Chris and I recently had a conversation where we both had arrived at the same conclusion – it feels like the kids have reached a point of saturation. Not that they are no longer enjoying our trip or our time together. But what we hoped would be sparked by this journey has – to some degree – been fulfilled...their appreciation and curiosity of difference, resilience in the face of challenge or ‘unforeseen circumstances,’ grappling with socio-economic inequities and historical contexts that give rise to them, and willingness to try new things. And on the other side of that, they are no longer ‘wowed’ by sights like they once were. There is a quiet appreciation, but it has become more ‘normal life,’ rather than oh-my-god-how-am-I-so-lucky.

We are currently in Hanoi (more on that in a bit), and just returned from an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay. We ended up on a gorgeous boat with floor-to-ceiling views of limestone cliffs jutting out in 360-degree panoramas. It was stunning and iconic. 

I watched my kids take in the magnificent scenery and noticed that the wows had turned into more subtle appreciation, with a tad of been-there-done-that thrown in the mix. This is not a case of spoiled children (I hope!). I believe that it is more of a psychological response to the relentless wows of this trip, as well as legitimately having had a number of similar experiences for context and comparison.

The kids’ time horizons also differ. Whereas Chris and I both feel the fleetingness of this time together, our kids live much more in the present. They know this day-to-day reality as their life - past, present, and future (Obie may be an exception here). We recently asked Asa what he remembers of our house in Vancouver...shockingly little! For him, this is life. The wows, the challenges, the food, overtaking motorbikes, people pinching his cheeks.

And now back to the travelogue. I know I have waxed endlessly about the places I have loved thus far in our trip. But Hanoi. I absolutely love-love-love this city. It’s vibrancy, street culture, mixture of old and new, pride of history, enchanting cafes, winding alleyways and vertical houses, endless balconies and courtyards with plants spilling out. I could go on and on.

Hue, Family Rooms, and Regulation in New Places

On Family Rooms
A good friend recently commented on the human capacity for adaptability. So for all of you wondering how this life works, here’s another slice! We are now on the road, and to some degree, will be for the rest of the journey. While we will have some longer rest stops, we will no longer be rooted in a place for three months. So that demands a certain adaptability. We are currently in Hue, a city of history, legacy, violence, and pride. We truly love it here. Alive, charming, steeped in history and sadness and glory, it’s perhaps my favorite place we have visited thus far in Vietnam.

And there’s one problem. I booked a ‘family room’ in a charming guesthouse. This means we are all in the same, small room. This honestly doesn’t work for anyone. We all need our space, time to recharge, find our groove in new surroundings, etc. and this layout doesn’t really account for that. So besides late-night scrolling through every single booking we have remaining in the trip to make sure I never, ever do this again (findings report: we have five challenging bookings, must revise ASAP), here’s a snapshot of what I have done since we arrived to take some personal time.

I get up early, find the local café, put in earphones, drink a coffee, write, and read. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good solution for now.

So here I am, at a café called ‘Binancians’ [what the what?], reading a fascinating re-imagination of the final months of Ho Chi Minh, and writing, while the endless streams of motorcycles whiz by, a very large and very small dog hump across the street, and a man speaks so loudly on his phone that it breaks through my noise-cancelling earphones.

Collective Regulation
Yesterday, another small moment in a big day of exploration. First days post-travel are often not great. There is this unsettled feeling in the family, destabilized routines, and the overwhelm of unrelenting newness.

So here we were in Hue. We had breakfast at our homestay, on the edge of short tempers and impatience, and then took a taxi to the old Imperial City. We first met a Vietnamese mother and son; the mother was teaching the son English and she asked our kids to ‘interview’ him to practice his English. A very sweet moment between kids across cultures. 

We spent some time with them, took photos, and moved on to explore the humid environs of the Imperial City. Impressive and heartbreaking, lessons of colonialism and intruders and heritage. We were hot and impressed, everyone coping well enough.

We then headed out to find lunch. It was a holiday here, so most local places were not open. Quite hungry after aimless wanderings, we took a taxi to a restaurant near our house, a place recommended by both locals and tourists. We wandered in, famished and hot, to crowds of people – families and friends – no seating in sight, no clarity of how we get a table, loud, hot, voices, coughing, laughter, unfamiliar smells. Finally got a table. Ordered. Half of the food came. Some wonderful, some a bit ‘fishy’ for our palates. Never saw the server again. Waited. Ordered food again. Waited. Nothing happening. Confusion, waiting, fatigue, noise.

And amidst the noise and temperature and smells, our kids’ energy, well, intensified. On edge, louder, slightly unpredictable. It culminated in a drink spilled and small punishments. But what happened next was what was remarkable to me. First, Emmet took full accountability, saying that it was his fault and that the others shouldn’t be punished. Then Obie calmly took accountability and was able to articulate that while they shouldn’t have been behaving in that way, the environment felt overwhelming to them all. The noises, the heat, the fatigue, and that they all found it hard to ‘turn it down.’ It was quite an insight. We were able to talk about it, talk about these moments of unfamiliarity and overstimulation, and how we each handle them.

My kids have become so good at ‘rolling with it’ that we forget that we all have moments of strain, of stretch, of missing, of unsettledness. And our nervous systems cope with those moments in different ways. But what was remarkable was all of us coming together to talk through it, to understand each other, and acknowledge the moments where we all have to call on different parts of ourselves to weather challenge.

Afternoon Pilgrimage at Sunset
It was important to me to visit Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘root temple.’ Thich Nhat Hanh grew up as a Buddhist monk at the Từ Hiếu Pagoda (Chùa Từ Hiếu), located just on the city’s edges. Exiled for 39 years from Vietnam for his nonviolent activism, he finally returned to his root temple for the last three years of his life. Unable to speak after a stroke, those in his presence during his final years remarked that he exuded a deep presence that permeated throughout the temple. Before visiting, we watched a video about his life and then paid homage to his impact on the world, quietly wandering through the forest retreat. 

Peaceful and beautiful, embellished by the non-melodic and joyfully boisterous karaoke of its next door neighbors. Classic.

Asa also thought it would be particularly holy for him to lose his second tooth at this monastery, but alas, it was not to be. 

Ok, time to return to family life. More to come from our last day in Hue and onwards to Phong Nha! 

Reset in Penang

Penang was the reset we needed. Hot and sticky (my favorite!), teeming with other families who opted for worldschooling paths, a reprieve from what felt like a spate of unglamorous meh. In ‘normal’ life, the state of unglamorous meh – while perhaps not desired – can offer something of a soothing appeal; but in this life, where we seek to embody a different flavor of intention, it feels like a waste.

Cue the Penang reset. We hiked the incredibly steep Penang Hill, rode bikes to a gorgeous spit of land in the south of the island, visited the Batu Caves where we beheld the largest statue of the Hindu god Murugan as well as a sadhu lurching his way up hundreds of stairs in the midst of self-mortification rituals, and visited an island that rehabilitates orangutans. It was the palate cleanse we needed to start fresh in Vietnam for our last month here.

So this is a rather odd post because it is comprised of preface (the story of our arrival in Penang) and post-script (our journey back to Vietnam), and a few of my favorite pics from the journey itself. Another post is coming soon by Emmet who will fill in the middle. 

The trip started rather ridiculously. While most people enjoy traveling in some form, I think for me the enjoyment is often rooted in surprise with a good dose of surreal hilarity. Surprise that comes with some challenge, but then bursts through the door, a mixture of awe, serendipity, and someone laughing in the distance.

We started from our house in Hoi An at 8:30 am, drove the hour to Da Nang airport, winding our way through roads adorned with the red lanterns and banners, yellow flower bushes, kumquat trees, and crowds of morning Tet (new year) festivities. Airport security, phenomenal lounge (go Da Nang!), easy flight, and we arrived in Kuala Lumpur four hours later. Now Chris and I had decided that we would get a car from KL to Penang, a quick so-we-thought four-hour drive. Much cheaper than the additional flight, and easier than the train.

We were wrong. Yet another episode of – “I thought my parents had all the answers, and wow, how wrong I was!”

How did we miss that the new year party was also in full swing in Malaysia? As it turned out, we were traveling on Lunar New Year’s Eve. We embarked on this journey along with thousands of other revellers making their way out of the city. “Ok, no problem,” I thought. We have iPads. We have snacks. Our kids are now habituated to travel hiccups. We can handle this.

We started on the trip. A friendly older Tamil man was our driver and I quickly settled into a brief conversation with him. We were on our way.

Then things went downhill quickly. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say our lovely driver clearly had some mysterious ailment which necessitated that I made sure through the duration of the ride that he did not either fall asleep or lose control of his body. Upbeat chatter engaging him in conversation punctuated by several texts between Chris and I negotiating who was going to jump into the front seat and grab the wheel when he lost consciousness.

I will not bore you with other parts of this ride, but needless to say it was not easy to find rest stops (and when you did, they were backlogged with hundreds of cars), we were stuck in too-many-to-count traffic jams, and our driver was shall we say, ‘heavy-footed’ with the brakes. For what turned out to be an EIGHT HOUR journey, I hyper-focused, attentive mama bear, magicking our driver to stay awake, engaging him in frequent conversation about Malaysia, systemic discrimination of Indians, the history and politics of this place, his retirement from government service, and modeling for his children of the importance of hard work.

We arrived safely. Our kids were rockstars. We made our way up to our very small, but gorgeously situated 27th floor apartment, with panoramic views of Penang. It was now 11:40 pm. I lumbered downstairs to the local 7-11 to get supplies. Chris cleverly MacGyvered up beds and separate areas for the kids in this tiny apartment. We began to settle in. All of a sudden, cracking sounds, then ground-shaking bangs, encircled our abode. What was happening????

And slowly it dawned on me. It’s midnight and it’s New Years Eve. We threw open the curtains on the floor-to-ceiling windows and watched fireworks shooting up from every neighborhood, explosions of color lighting up the city in every direction. It was utter magic.

Penang was pretty awesome. We met up with worldschoolers from around the world, participated in lunar new year festivities, Chris and I had an awesome date where we found a speakeasy bar hidden in a back alley, ate a fancy Nnonya meal, and wandered through the town late at night. We even tracked down the elusive paper coffee filters we spent a month searching for in Vietnam. Emmet is about to write an update with all of the activities we did in Penang, so I’ll leave it to him to offer you the photos and summaries of our adventures. For now, here a few of my favorite pics.

A Final Note
As many of you know, much of this trip is about growth – both purposefully cultivated and unpredictable. One of the many reasons we wanted to do this trip is to offer our kids an environment from which grow into themselves without the confines of a bricks-and-mortar school. While we have very much learned throughout this journey that we are not homeschoolers and that donning the hats of formal educators is not our favorite pastime, I very much appreciate what for me has become a purposeful loosening – allowing my kids to grow in ways that feel more natural for them outside of a regimented school environment. So I’ll leave you with this moment.

On the plane yesterday from Penang to Da Nang, Obie was in a row without us for the first time. I watched him engage a middle-aged Indian woman in conversation for nearly an hour. He has this incredible ability to spark conversation with anyone, to ask questions and to show up openly and without judgement. I have seen this again and again on this trip – across cultures, languages, and religions. I believe that is why he has decided on this trip how much he loves learning languages – because it enables him to connect with people. I had to take a picture of this one because this for me is what this trip is about – slowed-down moments out of my grasp where I see my kids not for what I want them to be, or what I think would be best for them, but where their own gravitational pull is powered fully by them.

Also, let's not forget this milestone...Asa lost his first tooth! What the tooth fairy must have had to go through to find him in Penang! 

It's Not All Roses Over Here...

We’ve been quiet recently and inquiring minds want to know. And I figure the truth is that if we completely leave out this part of the trip, then we would be lying – both to the small outside world that cares and to our present and future selves. As partially expected, leg two of the trip has not gone as planned. Why that is the case is a concoction of variables that end up adding up to a big fat ‘meh.’ So here it goes.

Hoi An is a small town on the east coast of Vietnam, right in the middle of the country, a bit south of Da Nang. It is known as a romantically colored (and highly touristed) town, with sprawling rice fields, faded yellow colonial buildings, and lanterns dotting the town and the boats that wind through its river. It truly is magical – that is, when it’s not raining.

The draw for us was its size. Compared to Chiang Mai, we thought it would be small and welcoming, we could find community quickly, and we could take advantage of having bikes and spend leisurely afternoons wandering through rice paddies and venturing on bikes to the beach. There truly have been a couple of days like this.

But the real story is this. It is winter here. You would think that 60s/low 70s (low 20s) would be warm enough, but it’s just too windy and rainy. You can’t bike during those times. No one, I repeat, no one is at the beach. The cute collection of restaurants and shops at the beach is a hollowed-out ghost town. The Vietnamese government changed its visa rules since Covid, so travelers can only get 30 days entry into Vietnam. That means that Hoi An basically cleared itself out of foreigners – one person told me it once had 4,000 long term expats, and it has now dropped to 300. Finally, we are here before the big new year holiday of Tet, when people take off and go visit family for long periods of time. It feels empty or like the town doesn’t have a center of gravity. The end result is that we just can’t get a foot in here – we go to a restaurant, no one is there. No activities are happening. Where is everyone???

And then there is the house. It should be awesome, shouldn't it? Look at this pool, and our cute bikes and scooter!

But there just have been SO MANY ridiculous things. This will bore you to tears, but we just had to have a repository to store the mishaps of this house.

  • No blankets, not enough sheets, no lamps, no side tables, no towels, no cleaning supplies
  • No hot water
  • Water stops altogether
  • Small centipede on couch
  • Electric shock from microwave
  • Can’t turn TV volume down
  • Power completely out
  • Still no hot water
  • Cockroach in bathroom
  • Low water pressure in shower
  • Shower water never gets to right temperature - either scalding or freezing
  • Large centipede in bathroom
  • Electric kettle breaks
  • Loud karaoke from neighbours every few nights (which is somewhat endearing)
  • Microwave back - shocks Chris again
  • iPad charger tips lightly shock us
  • Large spider in house
  • AC doesn’t turn on
  • Battery compartment corroded in AC remote
  • Rat nest inside AC unit
  • Dead large lizard outside house
  • AC is dripping in neighbour’s yard "preventing chickens from laying eggs"
  • Many spiders inside house
  • Giant grasshopper in living room
  • Tin roof clatters constantly every time it rains 
  • Loud banging on same roof every time wind gusts
  • Landlords speak no English (and our Vietnamese is definitely lacking) so we have to communicate through realtor
  • Chickens and roosters loudly crowing 24/7, dog barks during the night
  • Pool guy shows up 5 times in 2 days
  • No screens on windows so can't open doors because of mosquitos - things in bathroom getting mold all over them 

So we’ve decided to jump ship a bit early. This slightly breaks our hearts, because we know that things will improve with both the weather and the environment after the holiday. That said, when there are enough signs that something isn’t quite right, then it is best to listen to those voices. So here’s the new plan:

  • Hop over to Penang for a 10 day worldschooling hub this weekend
  • Come back to Hoi An for a few days, then venture off on a trip to Hue and Phong Na
  • Back to the house for our final few days and then fly to Hanoi
  • Hang out in Hanoi, go to Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh
  • Fly to Taiwan to visit our dear friends for a couple of weeks
  • Fly to Sri Lanka for 3 weeks
  • Then start our Italy trip (the final leg!!!)

The world is now looking up since we’ve settled on a new plan. And things haven’t been all bad. Obie has finished up his 8th grade applications/assessments, Emmet has found a new passion for poetry (along with photography), Asa has been inspired by the incessant karaoke of this place and pushes for nightly karaoke dance parties where we all go up to the attic, put on a disco light, play music, and sing and dance. Chris has been restarting running training. I’ve done some Pilates and have been exploring a possible academic return. We have times of biking and scootering through rice paddies. We’ve had a couple of sunny days at the beach. We have seen the dragon bridge breathe fire and water in Da Nang and explored some incredible sights such as My Son Sanctuary, Marble Mountain, and Lady Buddha. 

My Son: ruins from the Champa Kingdom in the 4th-13th century, with origins of Indian Hinduism (bombed heavily during the American/Vietnam war)

Marble Mountain: five limestone mountain peaks with interlocking caves filled with Confucian and Buddhist shrines

Lady Buddha and Linh Ung Pagoda

Da Nang, including the fire/water breathing dragon bridge

And I'm sorry - I can't resist all of the pictures of creatures we have seen. This does not include all of the snakes, which slither away too quickly for a picture. The last pic is of the AC man clearing the rat's den out of Obie's AC. A bit too much for this city girl...

But it’s time to switch gears…onwards and upwards!

First Week in Vietnam

We’ve now been in Hoi An, Vietnam for nearly a week. The transition was not an easy one. It all started with an excruciatingly stupid plane route that had us fly from Male to Kuala Lumpur in a 4-hour overnight flight, and then rot away for 5.5 hours in wing 3 of the Kuala Lumpur airport. This part of the airport - the low-budget wing, currently in construction - had no place to lie down. Grateful for our kids’ exhausted but unflinching roll-with-it attitudes, we moved over some chairs and slept on the ground for the next 3+ hours. At one point, bleary eyed, I woke up, saw a large brown cockroach scuttling along on Chris backpack, brushed it off, and went back to sleep. I have no idea if that was real or a dream.

We landed in Da Nang, exited customs, found our driver, and made our way to our new home 40 minutes south of the airport. It was rainy and dreary out. Not cold, but certainly not warm, my skin already nostalgic for the luxurious perfection of the Maldives’ cocktail of sun and breeze. We pulled up to the house, and several people began to wave us in, asking our driver to carefully back into a narrow driveway. This passageway definitely was not meant for cars. And slowly we began to carry our bags into our house.

Now we rented this house sight unseen, no reviews, just a few pictures. And you might think – well, that wasn’t your most savvy travel decision. And I would nod affirmatively, perhaps aggressively. It’s been quite an adventure. 

The house is big, much bigger than our Chiang Mai house. It has a pool (why would we need a pool in cold, rainy weather you also might ask?), backs up onto the river, is three stories, and has enough rooms for each of my kids to have their own room (a first!). BUT. It also feels a weird combination of old and never-lived-in, hollow, sparsely furnished. We have found two questionably poisonous centipedes in the house. The first day the water stopped working, and Chris got an electrical shock from the microwave which then began smoking. There was no hot water. There were no lamps, no night tables, no towels, no blankets, no sheets. Roosters wake us up before the sun rises, and our room is covered by a tin roof which blasts its tin drum every time it rains. Chris and I were urgently looking for a way out of this rental contract.

But then, a flurry of activity and humanity. The real estate agent, the landlady, her daughter. A story of her husband stricken by a stroke, no longer able to fix the house. People streaming in, with nightside tables and lamps, a large table and chairs, blankets and towels. The electrician, the plumber, the laundry lady, the pool man.

And so began our adventure in Vietnam. It hasn’t been the easiest. I can’t yet tell you what the tag line will be for this part of our eat-pray-love adventure. But I can say without a doubt that I have already engaged deeply by people here, learned of their stories, and have been jolted awake by a certain dynamism. 

First impressions - this place is alive! Beeping, laughing, loud talking, a lot of hugging, so much music. People love karaoke (I’ve heard it’s 90% men, but still…). Everyone engages us and loves on our kids. The second time we entered our local minimart, the old woman asked Emmet to take her picture, gave the kids lollipops, and proceeded to hug every one of our kids. Here are some shots of our first days...wandering through rice paddies, exploring the currently desolate wind-swept beach, markets, and Hoi An town...

While most of our time here has been setting up the house and the logistics of our stay (bikes, etc.), here are snapshots of two adventures:

Cooking Tour
This was our first experience of a tour in Hoi An. We paddled down a river in coracles, almost caught crabs, and learned how to make Hoi An food specialties.

First a coracle trip with leaf jewelry and crab catching...

Then cooking - fresh rolls, spring rolls, banh xeo, and pho...

Village Bike Tour - 27 km!!!
Now this really should be its own blog post. We went on a boat down the river and then rode 27 kilometers. Asa was on the back of Chris’ bike, but everyone else (including Emmet!) did this ride. Through rice paddies, village streets, around cows, next to pigs, across rivers, over snakes (literally). 

We learned the stories of our guides, how villagers survive annual flooding, repurpose French/American bombs into vases, weave bed mats, make rice, make snake (cobra!) and centipede wine, hug chickens (mortal enemies of centipedes) to heal centipede bites, and more. It was unbelievably awesome.

The elders in the village all seemed to have a story from the American war, including this 99-year-old woman whose husband was killed in the war. In the pictures above: the woman weaving a bed mat with her son, old French bombs repurposed in and around her house, and the hollowed out tunnel where she and her family used to hide. 

Snake wine (only men drink) and centipede wine (only used for massages). Chris tried the snake wine. I tried the rice wine without the snake :) 

And a few more of some training in paddling a coracle...

I was so proud of the kids for heroically thriving from a 6:45 am wakeup until we got home at 6:30 pm at night. The guides said they had never before had so much fun and laughed so much with a group. This trip is nothing but micro-moments, where I find myself suddenly rising above the planning for the next day's adventures and watch my kids interact with the world. Moments out of time, I see how they have grown, how open they are to newness and 'firsts,' and how engaging they are in conversation and curiosity about the world and people around them. 

I'm still not thrilled with the weather, but people tell me we are on the edge of a seasonal shift, so I'm waiting!